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As historic jobs program rolls out in San Antonio, do we still need it?

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is joined by several dozen members of the business community in Feb 2022 as it prepared to launch the $200 million voter approved "SA: Ready to Work" jobs training program.

If you enroll in SA: Ready to Work, we'd love to hear from you about the process. Email paul@tpr.org.

San Antonio Ready to Work officially launched Monday. The five-year program is targeted toward more than 15,000 city residents for higher skill jobs at a cost of more than $229 million.

The program was approved by voters in November 2020 — shortly after the city’s unemployment rate soared to 12%. The job training idea passed in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. There was mass unemployment, San Antonio food lines made the national nightly news and key industries were in turmoil.

But in May 2022, the current job landscape is seeing historically low unemployment in the city. So, does San Antonio still need Ready to Work?

The advisory boards that make up San Antonio Ready to Work aren’t ignorant to the question.

“So the question would be, ‘Why do we still need this program?’” said a board member at an April 28 meeting.

The quandary was about the optics of launching a jobs program in a city at 3.5% unemployment. 

The consensus was that employers are hard up for workers across the board — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of unfilled jobs — at 11.5 million — is the highest it has been in the history of the dataset — which began in 2000.

And that unemployment rate is only part of the story.

“They're still segments of our population, certain zip codes in our community, that have historically had higher unemployment rates, sometimes two, three times what the rate for the community has been, and there's still a great need,” said Mike Ramsey, executive director of the city’s Workforce Development office.

Mike Ramsey COSA
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Mike Ramsey, Workforce Development Executive Director for San Antonio

As much as this is about having a better trained labor force for San Antonio employers — it’s also about cracking generational poverty.

The more skill-required, the harder to fill. Ready to Work wants to fill those middle- and high-skill jobs and hopefully change people’s lives. The program was always touted as a way to get people out of low-skill jobs.

“We have the highest poverty rate of all the large cities in the nation, they get that point,” said Ramsey.

It is unusual for a city to dedicate so much money to jobs training in this manner. For some it felt like after decades of seeing little change in the largely low-skill workforce, the city had to take this on.

“It wasn’t like the federal government was stepping in,” said Manny Pelaez, District 8 councilman.

Who's going to quit their job? Who's gonna go full time into a program to learn to go into new employment that's supposed to be better and more supportive of families, etc, and only come in at $15 an hour?
Sonia Rodriguez, COPS/Metro Alliance

The federal government is the largest funder of jobs training, but many feel it hasn’t kept up with the need. Federal funding for workforce development peaked in 1979. But despite the U.S. labor force growing by more than 60 million people, the funding is just a fraction of that 1979 amount which researchers put at between $50-60 billion. In 2019, the Trump Administration estimated it was spending roughly $18.9 billion.

Efforts to increase funding through President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan — which would have injected $100 billion into the system — stalled last year.

“We saw a void of leadership here, and we've stepped up,” said Pelaez.

The Plan

Over five years, RTW leaders want 28,000 San Antonians to complete the training and they want to place at least 15,000 in qualifying jobs — high paying, growth jobs. They used the area job plan to target 77 professions from pharmacy technician to web developer.

“It's definitely a stretch, right? We're stretching ourselves,” said Adrian Lopez, CEO of Workforce Solutions Alamo.

Lopez said if it was just Workforce Solutions, these numbers would be hard to accomplish.

Ready to Work contracts with four providers: Workforce Solutions, Project Quest, Restore Education and Alamo College District. Some of these are direct education providers, others aren’t.

The pipeline will provide “wraparound services” which means there is supposed to be support for enrollees from the beginning to job placement. That includes financial counseling, assessment, navigating other education benefits and emergency funding or assistance finding social service providers.

Ready to Work budget
City of San Antonio
April 2022 budget appropriation estimate for SA Ready to Work.

Providers in expectation have been preparing to add staff.

“We want to be able to scale up to meet the demand of potential students,” said Mike Flores, chancellor of Alamo College District. “And so we're going to hire case managers, we're going to increase the number of faculty and teachers that we have throughout our workforce programs as well as adult literacy.”

The pandemic caused Project Quest to double capacity in the last two years. The program was linked in — as were other providers — with Train For Jobs SA, the predecessor to Ready to Work.

“Ready to Work is just this unique moment that I haven't seen in the history of San Antonio to have this kind of investment made,” said David Zammiello, CEO of Project Quest

Will Ready to Work work?

From enticing people into the program with messaging, to ensuring the jobs they are training for exist through employer engagement, to ensuring people finish and then are hired — execution is key to the program’s success.

Ready to Work has taken 18 months to set up its program, and much of that execution has gone unseen so far. Time was pointed out as one of the stumbling blocks of the program’s predecessor Train for Jobs SA — the CARES Act funded program put together in 2020.

Train for Jobs was the focus of much media attention and called out for not meeting early goals of training and placing 10,000 people into new jobs. As of the beginning of this month it had placed 1,602 individuals in new jobs and only 5,420 had entered training.

“I view it as a success,” said Ramsey. “Right now, over 1,500 have gotten jobs through that Train for Jobs program, you know, that's significant impact.”

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Ramsey said the program was put together quickly to help people quickly. And they did learn lessons from it.

“We learned that alignment with the business community is vital. There wasn't enough time to really fully develop that step in the training for jobs program, but ready to work is doubling down on employer engagement,” he said.

This time, many employers are on advisory boards for the program. The city has garnered more than 180 “employer pledges” which essentially say they will promote the program and hire graduates. USAA, Valero Energy, Beldon Roofing and others have signed on. These are not legally binding pledges.

This is the most important question in the field of job training right now for disadvantaged workers, you know, can you scale up these successful models
Harry Holzer, Georgetown University

To really ensure these graduates get hired, the program must turn out good graduates.

“If they send one or two lemons to an employer, the whole model can break down,” said Harry Holzer, the LaFarge SJ Professor at the McCourt school of Public Policy at Georgetown.

But first and foremost employers will need graduates to hire, so getting people to sign up for Ready to Work is a challenge not to be underestimated.

Train for Jobs — in more than 18 months — has only entered 5,000 people. The city and its partners will need to train and place 3,000 every year to keep pace with its goal. Train for Jobs had a guaranteed $450 weekly stipend. Ready to Work has none.

Organizers have just a few months before the fiscal year ends, and have said they will enroll 1,600 in that amount of time. They have an estimated 800 residents that have pre-registered.

Some believe the program will be hampered by a minimum job wage of $15 an hour.

“That’s a hard sell, that’s a very hard sell,” said Sonia Rodriguez with COPS/Metro Alliance, a coalition of groups that advocates for working families. “Who's going to quit their job? Who's gonna go full-time into a program to learn to go into new employment that's supposed to be better and more supportive of families and only come in at $15 an hour? Nobody wants that.”

Ready to Work organizers have said in the past that the $15 is just the floor and based on the jobs they have targeted it is likely that many will start out well in excess of that number.

COPS/Metro wants this program to succeed — to that end they will host 500 small gatherings promoting the program throughout the city. The organization has backed increasing wraparound service funding as well as money for enrollees emergencies. Both things the city agreed to do.

“You know, shit happens to these folks,” said Holzer.

The targeted demographic has many barriers to education and training: food insecurity, housing insecurity, they must currently make less than 250% of the federal poverty guideline — or $34,000.

These barriers can prevent them from bouncing back from emergencies, and Holzer said it needs to be considered.

“I come with high hopes for this, because to me, this is the most important question in the field of job training right now for disadvantaged workers, you know, can you scale up these successful models,” he said

While not connected to the program, he and other national experts are already paying attention to San Antonio for programs like Project Quest — now they want to see if a city can scale efforts like that.

“And even if San Antonio has a rough first couple of years, and the early results, you know, we should, we shouldn't get discouraged and label it a failure, you know, we should give them a chance, you know, what they're doing is really important,” he said

City residents have been patient, waiting 18 months for this program to be set up after voting for it in November 2020. Now, with a price tag of $46 million a year, the question becomes will residents be patient as the program finds its way?

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive